Essays: Magnus Polo's travels |
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Magnus Polo’s travels

THE new season is by now diligently at work, and beginning to yield wealth. Soon it will be hard to find a night in which it’s advisable to switch the set off and go out to the local cinema — to see if it’s still there, before running home to switch the set back on.

Documentaries jostled one another to take a look at you. The most muscular of them was the first part of a terrific show about China (BBC2), peripatetically hosted by Iceland’s gift to Scotland, the excellent Magnus Magnusson. The word peripatetic referred originally to Aristotle’s habit of loping around the Lyceum while teaching a seminar, and thus fits Magnusson like winged footwear, since he is forever on the move. With the China show he has gone the way of Marco Polo, on the silk road of knowledge to Cathay. The BBC has been in China before, but not like this: this is the first time that China’s past has been opened up to see what light it will throw on the present.


Accompanying Magnus Magnusson, and playing an omniscient Virgil to his inquiring Dante, was London University’s own Professor William Watson. MM and WW spiralled together deep down into the source-land of the whole Chinese culture, the Yellow Earth country. Stuff entombed in that soil lasts a long time. The earliest known glazed pot in the world was produced, dated to somewhere about the time of the first Pharaoh. The firing and glazing, we were assured, are more advanced than anything that appeared in Europe before 1778.

Having been brought up on legends of the Yellow Peril’s eternal facility for innovation — including being led to believe that they had hydro-electric power and the Gatling gun a millennium before Christ — I am hard to impress with the mere mention of wonders like this. But there was the pot, in person, and looking as if it had been made yesterday. Gear that you’re going to have to queue for for a week before you get a few seconds to run past it in London was lingering seductively on screen while MM and WW ladled out the facts. The jade suit, thought the Chinese royals, would immortalise its occupant. It didn’t, but the modern Chinese revolutionaries have immortalised the suit — tending it, like all the other fragments of their past, with loving care. Why the mini-Myrmidons of the Cultural Revolution should combine respect for the past with sadistic contempt for the learned men dedicated to its transmission must remain, I suppose, inscrutable.

The unbelievable mountains of the South loomed up, followed by, I think, the North. More maps would have been helpful. There were times when it was hard to puzzle out where MM and WW actually were. Occasionally this mystery was deliberate, as when they chatted to each other, in a tight two-shot, about the Chinese inventing the crossbow (four centuries BC, natch) and employing it to lethal effect on the Great Wall of China. The camera then zoomed teasingly out, to show that our heroes were currently sitting on the Great Wall of China. WW, after ordering in Chinese at a rather fabulous-looking restaurant, showed MM how to use chopsticks. MM: ‘Why didn’t they adopt the knife and fork?’ WW: ‘Why on earth should they?’ More of all this tonight, when the second part comes on. If you miss it you’re crazy.

Less exalted but more passionate was a finely compiled show about the rebellious Gurindji tribe called The Unlucky Australians (ATV), which traced their long struggle to win back a slice of the expropriated aboriginal stamping-grounds. The dreary slog of exploitation had been going on without interruption throughout the White Man’s brief history on the smallest continent, but in 1966 the Gurindji packed it in and trekked away to rediscover their own lives. Their chief white assistant in the ensuing hassle was the Marxist writer Frank Hardy, famous in Australia for a long, turgid, necessary novel about the robber press-barons called ‘Power Without Glory.’

Hardy spoke with deep sympathy about the ruthless pressures brought to bear on the Gurindji by the foreign conglomerate which most stood to lose by their assertion of basic human rights. Finally, under Whitlam’s new Government, some of these rights were granted. Hardy penetrated to the roots of the Gurindjis’ ancient culture with a tact that matched his bravery. There was a perennial naïvety, however, in his unwillingness to see that the Gurindjis’ determination to acquire the white man’s skills could be just as effective as oppression in leading to the extinction of the old ways. But this was an exemplary documentary and well demonstrated how Australia has come on since my lot left it at the beginning of the sixties.

Moving from the reprehensible to the ridiculous, we were given an ‘Omnibus’ documentary about The Sydney Opera House (BBC1). The foundations of this edifice had already been laid when I steamed past on my way to Europe, all unaware that the podium and the roof were at that stage the only parts of the building which had actually been designed — what was to come between them consisted mainly of conflicting arguments. The sun-gate of Luna Park has laughed many times through the harbour night since then, and now the thing is finished: not as quickly as the Eiffel Tower but a good deal faster than King’s College Chapel, Chartres or Florence cathedral. Certainly it looks very beautiful, a testament to Utzon’s genius. On sunny days its roof will find a thousand candid echoes in the racing sails. But Sir Robert Helpmann was emphatic: there isn’t room to do a decent job for ballet and opera. The thing is choc-a-bloc with built-in design faults that it is now a decade too late to build out. Lovely as it may look, the Opera House is a product of philistine hubris, a ritzy container fashioned without sufficient thought of the thing to be contained. Last year in this column I wrote that the Opera House, after its gala opening, would stage a wrestling match on the second night. These words were front-paged in Sydney under the heading THE EX-PATRIATES ARE THE WORST KNOCKERS. They had a point, since my prediction proved wrong. But the third-night attraction turns out to be Rolf Harris.

The Observer, 30th September 1973